Archive for August, 2011

Terrifying gracefulness

August 20, 2011 3 comments

Danny Macaskill is amazing, and wonderful in that “nevermind what you thought the limits were” way.  I’m always amused by YouTube comments like “I wish I could do that!” however.  Start with natural talent AND spend ten thousand hours or so practicing, along with lots of money and considerable time in hospital, getting corporate sponsors and sacrificing relationships and who-knows-what-else along the way, and you wouldn’t need to wish.

The setting of this video is especially poignant, because I knew a photographer who died exploring an old railyard like this.  Some of the moves are… well don’t try this at home, kids.  (Don’t mind the music – it gets better in about thirty seconds)

Want more Macaskill?  I’ve posted him before in a stunning urban bicycle ballet that brings tears to my eyes. (h/t to alert reader WeeDram, who has made some wonderful photos of our county’s abandoned railyard before it was torn down.)

“Please sir, I want some more” you say?  I must oblige: check out his new video in the green island countryside: Way Back Home.  You won’t look at castles or tank-defense emplacements the same way again.

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Oscar’s summer

August 17, 2011 5 comments
Oscar posing Aug 2011

Oscar watching Diane crochet something (click to embiggen)

Posting cat pictures is a blogger’s solemn responsibility; if we didn’t the Internet might stop.

Oscar isn’t in the best health; he’s 15, has arthritis and cataracts and kidney trouble and we lost his sister last year.  He’s losing a bit of weight.

But he carries on, doing what he’s always done – only more slowly.

Any proposed captions for this picture?

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Nothing to Undo

August 15, 2011 9 comments
Computer message; "Nothing to Undo"

"Nothing to Undo"... if only that were so

Here’s a message I saw last week after some accidental contact with the touch screen of my iPod…

“Nothing to Undo”. What would that be like?  And how do you “Cancel” undoing nothing?

We really don’t get many chances in life to “Undo”.  Maybe that’s why I’m a big fan of time-travel stories, from La jetée to The Terminator to Back To The Future.  The thought of going back and fixing what went wrong – something you could only know in hindsight – offers so many possibilities.  But, not all of them good.

Hiro Nakamura, the time-traveling Special on “Heroes” (as played by Masi Oka, who is reputed to be a genius in real life) had come finally to the conclusion that all the possibilities of “Undo” were bad.  ”Everything is interconnected!” he told the Evil Butterfly man.  ”There are no small butterflies!  It is always bad – always – to change the past!”  Of course he went on to prove – again – that at least, changing the past is very, very dangerous.  It helps to have the writers on your side though.

It might not always be bad, but it would likely be futile.   Would my teen self even believe my AARP self?  Would my young-adult self have the awareness to steer differently?  And if either me did change anything, what’s the likelihood that I’d just have different regrets?  In fact, I do feel this is exactly what would happen.  Regret is less a function of what happened and more about how you remember it.  How many iterations would my life have to go through before I got everything exactly right?  How many tries did it take Bill Murray to get even one day exactly right in Groundhog Day?

Maybe it’s a quirk of my brain, but it’s constant labor to keep putting down the burdens of the past.  There’s no final way to lay them down, no baptism, no washing of sins; I did what I did and here we all are.  So I put them down again, and again, with conscious effort.  Some people seem to have the ability to leave anything unpleasant behind – perhaps they are the ones who can survive wars without going insane.  But I am not them.

It hardly matters how trivial the action was.  An awkward social hug, or a few regrettable words can come back to me years later.  I still remember things I did as a child that I shouldn’t have.  There are really big damages too.  I’ve spent many nights awake, trying to breathe, unable to come to terms with an important relationship I managed to screw up.  I have found it comforting to read Siddhartha, whose main character had almost the same regret.

Again, there’s little doubt that some part of my brain simply works this way.  If an FMRI could be taken on one of those nights, almost certainly a neurologist could look at the scan and say; “There!  There’s your problem.  Now all we have to do is modify your medial orbitofrontal cortex.”

So here’s the question: if it is always wrong to change the past – a question I wouldn’t pretend to be able to answer even if it weren’t purely academic – is it OK to change your brain?  I used antidepressants after my dad died and they were a mixed blessing at best.  But what if there were some kind of new drug guaranteed to loose the vines of the past?  Don’t we need the sense of moral responsibility?  Would we be the same people without it?  Is there an ideal amount of regret?  Who decides what it is? Is it the same for everyone?

And if the setpoint can be achieved with medication, what does personhood even mean?  Everything, in the Christian tradition, where you have an eternal soul that can be tortured for all eternity unless the drug of absolution is administered by the divine neuropharmacologist.  Or really very little, in the Buddhist tradition, where the self is an illusion and the very first truth of existence is suffering.

Here’s what keeps me from looking too hard for a pharmacological answer – the possibility, however remote, of losing the joy I feel riding my bike in the snow, or watching an ant carry a bit of leaf, or watching my kids turn into the amazing people that they are.  I can’t risk losing that – and people who have tried medications often report that is exactly what they trade in the bargain.  Joy will not be held hostage to grief, or pain, or regret.  It is like a desert flower; as audacious as it is precious in contrast to its surroundings.

It’s how I make peace with existence.  And though it might seem intolerable to some people, I often wonder how they can stand living in their heads.  That’s a task I’d best leave, to them.  Any thoughts?  If you suffer from regret or depression, how do you ride it out?


  • Yes that’s right: I have now blogged about an iPod error screen.
  • In La jetée, you couldn’t change the past when time-traveling, only observe it.
  • I occasionally write very personal stuff like this because it would have helped me a lot back in the day – to understand how common it really is, that it doesn’t mean something’s wrong with you, and that it does pass.  There really is a wide range of normal.  If anything, the always-cheerful person (if they, in fact, are) is unusual. Notice I said “unusual”, not “wrong”.  But maybe not necessarily all that lucky either.
  • The tendency to ruminate may be hereditary.  My father used to lose a lot of sleep over things from the past.  He called them his “ghosts”.
  • SMBC has it distilled into three frames, of course
  • Apparently this iPod message inspires others to philosophy as well
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And now, a message from the Vague Platitude Society

August 12, 2011 4 comments
Smile sign on sidewalk

...because whoever put this sign down is bothered by all the frowny-faces.

I learned an amazing fact today: apparently defacing public property with graffiti is OK if you use high-quality materials and offer a message that you think is socially constructive.

No, really: somebody has been plastering the sidewalks on campus with these super-durable vinyl tiles.  They’re made of tough, shiny material (probably slippery in the rain) and stick strongly to the sidewalk.  There are helpful, one-word messages on them like “Smile” and “Improve” and “Encourage”.  They’re printed in black letters with a photographic-quality granite background so they look like a stone inlay in the concrete.  They’re made for heavy traffic and will probably last for months if people walk on them and set them in place.

Maybe I can use the same principle: I think that “Imprison Wall-Street fat-cats” would be a socially constructive message.  My durable graffiti medium would be, let’s say, epoxy paint.  And if it’s OK to deface public property, maybe it would be OK to deface private property!  Like the car windshields of whoever laid these signs down.  Think that would be OK?

I don’t know who put them down but there’s no faster way to piss me off than telling me I should “Smile”.  Seriously, sign-putting-down person, who the hell are you to tell me what facial expression I should have on?  Maybe I’m lost in thought, or worrying about my sick cat or my hip is bothering me.  Or maybe I just enjoy the world quietly in my own way.  Should we all walk around with smiles on our faces all the time?  Why?  I have an anatomically-impossible suggestion for you.

Here’s the other signs that I saw today.  There may be more; I will look tomorrow:

"Improve" sign on sidewalk

"Improve" what? I'm just generally not good enough?

Honesty sign on sidewalk

"...If you search for tenderness it isn't hard to find...."

Encourage sign on sidewalk

Encourage what? Promiscuity? Smoking? (Hey, you didn't specify...)

Mason's sign on light pole

"Who are the Masons? Ask one!

This is the first time I’ve ever seen graffiti like this… and also the first time I’ve ever seen a recruiting sign for… Masons.  Do you suppose they are the ones who plastered our sidewalks with self-improvement words?

From what I’d heard about The Masons, they were a pretty upright, constructive bunch.  Or they’re hiding secret documents from the Founding Fathers that have treasure maps embedded in them, I don’t know.  Maybe they’ve never had to recruit before and just don’t know how to go about it.  But if they are new to this game maybe they should consider learning the ropes of graffiti communication in a medium that washes away.  Like, you know, start with chalk.


Categories: Uncategorized

Caption Contest

August 8, 2011 10 comments

When I’m out walking and riding I see lots of unusual items dropped in the street.  I once found a wallet full of military and government ID cards.  I’ve found tools (OK, not this kind of tool), money, a crack pipe, toys (again…), computer backup tapes, and auto suspension parts whose absence would render the car from which they came very unsafe to drive.  If it’s something absurd enough (which is to say, out of its usual context) I whip out my… camera and take a picture.

Dildo found in street one August afternoon

Just an ordinary August afternoon in Normal, Illinois. Click to embiggen.

Walking to lunch today I spotted this in the crosswalk.  Looks like it’s been run over by a lot of cars.

What’s the, um, back story?  If you owned one of these how exactly do you lose it on the street?  Any ideas?  Feel free to make up a caption or story or Demotivational poster title in the comments.

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Complaining about free services

August 1, 2011 1 comment

@evcon RT’s:

Complaining about Twitter ads? Check it: MT @dotBen: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

Yep. And assuming that there could only ever be one micro-blogging service, then complaint is indeed fruitless. It’s their way or the highway.

But suppose another company could offer a competing service! Well that’s different then. If enough people get annoyed by the way Twitter works (for example), another company might have a decent shot at replacing them. After all it happened to MySpace.

It’s also true that Twitter needs to make a profit. And our politics often leads us to think in a zero-sum fashion. But in business it’s a dangerous game to annoy your customers on purpose. Instead of zero-sum, think Pareto efficient. That’s where you make improvements that make at least one party better off without making anyone worse off.

How to keep the advertisements while minimizing annoyance to your users? You might only need a little tweak here and there.  Any ideas?

Company brainstorming session? Absolutely. Website feedback page? You could get lucky. Hire a consultant to tell you what your users want? Let’s table that one for a moment.

Or you could search out those notorious complaints, on Twitter, on blogs, on Facebook. Odds are your users are already telling you what annoys them and maybe even how to fix it. Even if you ignore the ones who say; “No ads!” there will be plenty of constructive suggestions.

So go ahead and complain about that free service. Be as constructive as you can, and do remember they need some kind of a business model to keep offering you the service. If they’re smart they won’t take it personally, but they will listen. Or their competitors will.


  • *If you chafe at being the product sold, you’re not alone. But if we’re going to identify as consumers instead of as citizens, it’s inevitable. It’s also outside the scope of this post.
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